Growing tomatoes is a never-ending Process

Kathy Henderson

Garden Columnist

If you are under the assumption that you can read enough, watch enough gardening programs or get enough advice from a seasoned gardener to have a successful garden, change your mind right now.

Growing tomatoes using a plastic foil ground cover. Special photo

All of the above are wonderful ways to stretch your mind and give you ideas on where to start with your space and soil, BUT, you must garden and garden a lot before you have continuing success. Gardening in your space of sunlight, soil type and water availability will be different from others spaces and will vary from year to year even in your own space.

So, all of that said, I am going to give you a few of the tips that I have learned concerning the growing of tomatoes. This year has been tremendously successful and I do not attribute this success to only one factor. My mistakes over the past years have helped me enormously - so thank your errors, stamina and persistence for the success that you have earned. Then remember: you are a partner with the vagaries of the weather. Vagaries means quirks! And that, my gardening friend, is out of your control.

A table of heirloom tomatoes is worth a 1000 words. Special photo

1. Prepare your soil with good soil (if needed), organic fertilizer and plenty of lime. Mix this with the native soil very well. I like to get a soil test on new ground the season before I plant. Then I add some lime as indicated and prepare the beds with organic amendment and organic fertilizer. Then when spring comes the plants can be easily put in place. If you want to plant greens or a winter cover crop of some type, that is even better.

2. Start with healthy plants. A spindly tomato seedling grown in too little light will not develop into a strong healthy plant. A plant with insects or disease symptoms should not be planted. Watch for stunted plants; start with a strong, actively growing plant.

3. Install a non-organic mulch - a ground cover of some type. This year I used a shiny plastic foil mulch. Research indicates that this lessens soil heat and is thought to confuse many of the insects that visit the plants. There have been few insects and I can count the hornworms on one hand. Poor peacocks - no treats this year! As with all such mulches, the film holds in moisture and prevents splash of soil from reaching the leaves, thus reducing the incidence of disease. Weeds are also reduced to a minimum. If you have a black mulch that has a white underside, face the underside toward the sun - less heat absorption this way. Black ground cover absorbs heat and can cause the soil to be too warm.

4. Use liquid fertilizer especially when there is a drought. We distributed liquid fertilizer through the drip irrigation system underneath our ground cover. This irrigation system can be used for years, produces efficient use of water and keeps water from hitting the leaves of the plant. Overhead watering is a factor in disease growth. The plants stayed healthy, yet there was some splitting of skin on the tomato fruit, mostly due to water intake when the skin was tight and the sun was hot and dry. This does not affect the taste of the tomato, but reduces its shelf-life.

5. A good fence is a necessity in most areas to keep deer away. Use plastic bags on a string to make noise. A temporary electric fence is also helpful. What to do about the squirrels? No clue! Guns, dogs, cats and any other predator might work!

6. Harvest tomatoes when they exhibit a good blush of color, but not fully ripe. Let them sit in a cool place (not the refrigerator) and ripen for a few days. This will reduce splitting and some “bird-pecking” damage. Harvesting in the early morning is best.

7. Keep your eyes on the plants throughout the season - every day! Tie up the shoots that escape your support system so they will not break. Remove insects either with an organic spray or “picking.” Cut away diseased shoots and spray your pruners with alcohol after the cut. Remove lower leaves and shoots as they develop on the plant. Water to keep the soil evenly moist - do not allow a variable rollercoaster of dry and wet. Watch for blossom-end rot and apply a solution of calcium sulfate when seen.

Most of all, enjoy the process, don’t stress and eat lots of tomato sandwiches.

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